Solving problems is something we do every day – whether it be at work or throughout our personal lives. However, what we often tend to forget about is that each one of us has different approaches to finding solutions and solving problems.
As cognitive skills, according to World Economic Forum, especially complex problem-solving in the workplace, are reportedly growing in importance – so is the urgency to be able to assess these skills in candidates. However, these skills cannot be easily assessed by looking at someone’s CV or motivation letter. This is precisely why many employers have turned to assessing problem solving abilities during the interview process.
In this blog, you will find out:
- What is problem-solving ability
- 5 aspects of what make up problem solving ability
- 2 different types of problem solving styles
- 13 interview questions to determine problem-solving abilities
- Disadvantages of assessing problem-solving in interviews
What is problem-solving skill/ability?
A problem can be defined as a gap between the current situation and the desired outcome. To fill this gap, problem-solving abilities are needed. Problem-solving in the workplace describes our way of thinking and the behaviour we engage in to obtain the desired outcome we seek, which could be attaining a certain goal or finding a satisfactory answer to our questions.
In the workplace, employees are expected to solve problems daily, ultimately ensuring the smooth functioning of the company. Therefore, problem-solving ability is one of the most important aspects which needs to be assessed prior to hiring. Problem-solving ability is associated with several sub-skills depending on the nature of the tasks involved in the profession. For instance, a successful business consultant might want to be equipped with good communication skills, empathy, and analytical thinking, all of which can be considered sub-skills of problem-solving ability.
However, the thing is that assessing whether someone’s problem solving skills are high or low during an interview process is quite challenging . That is why you should focus on asking questions that allow to understand what kind of a problem solving style the candidate possesses.
2 different types of problem solving styles
Individuals might adopt different problem-solving strategies (otherwise also called styles) based on the information available for the problem, the time they spend on planning before they take action, or whether they like to test multiple solutions before deciding on which solution is the optimal one. The main problem-solving styles can be classified as intuitive and systematic, but what are the differences between these two styles of problem-solving?
Individuals with more systematic problem-solving style
- They have a higher tendency to first identify the situation and analytically disentangle problems into several components, then logically evaluate the available alternatives and try to find a rule to solve problems.
- At the end of the process, they may also evaluate the consequence of the whole process to possibly adjust their strategy in the future. However, they might face difficulty when tackling ill-structured or defined problems, whereby they cannot generate a promising plan to act.
- They may also struggle under time constraints when intuitive decisions need to be made.
Individuals that prefer more intuitive problem-solving style
- They prefer relying on their “gut feeling” when solving problems. While they may rely on their intuition to assess facts, they also often take their feelings and non-verbal cues from their surrounding into consideration.
- They are open to quickly switching to alternative solutions when things do not work out. Using this strategy, they are good at dealing with uncertainty, ill-defined problems or novel problems with no real information.
- However, this kind of thinking pattern might work sometimes but can be less effective with more complex problems and end up being more time-consuming overall than a more systematic approach.
Why you should assess problem solving style not ability during interviews?
Problem-solving style refers to an individual’s preferred approach to solving problems, such as relying on intuition or using a systematic approach. This is a relatively stable trait that can be identified through the candidate’s responses to interview questions.
In contrast, problem-solving ability is a multifaceted skill that involves various cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity. It can be difficult to assess a candidate’s problem-solving ability solely through interview questions because the interview setting may not provide a realistic representation of the types of problems the candidate would encounter on the job.
13 problem-solving interview questions to assess candidates
Let’s go through each question and discuss how candidates might answer and what that could indicate about their problem-solving abilities & style:
1.Can you describe a situation where you had to solve a problem without having all the necessary information at hand? How did you approach it?
A systematic problem solver might approach answering this question by explaining that they would find it important to try to gather as much information as possible before making a decision, while an intuitive problem solver might mention they would rely more on their instincts and prior experience to make a quick decision.
2. Let’s say you need to solve an unexpected problem but don’t have much information about it. What steps would you take to solve it efficiently?
A systematic problem solver might approach answering this question by breaking down the problem into smaller components and analyzing each one systematically, while an intuitive problem solver might rely more on their gut instincts and previous experience to quickly identify potential solutions.
If a candidate mentions that they would try to gather more information relating the potential causes of the problem to be able to grasp it better, that’s probably a better answer than just stating that they’d just decide to give up.
- Intuitive. “I would start by identifying the key issues and then brainstorming potential solutions. Once I had a few options, I would test them out and iterate until I found the best solution.”
- Systematic. “I would begin by gathering as much information as possible, researching the problem, and analyzing the data. Then, I would create a plan to address the problem and evaluate the effectiveness of the plan as I go along.”
3. How do you approach making decisions? Do you consider all alternatives before deciding on a solution?
When answering this question by explaining the importance of weighing all available options and then considering each one carefully before making a final decision, the candidate might have a more systematic approach to problem solving. Whereas, someone who has a more intuitive approach to solving problems might be answering the question by explaining they prefer to make decisions quickly and based on their instincts.
4. Can you walk me through a situation where you had to solve a problem? What steps did you take to address it?
The main goal of asking this question during the interview is to be able to determine what steps the person chooses to take when addressing the problem. For example, people who seem to plan less and act more intuitively will likely prefer a more trial-and-error, rather than an analytical approach to solving a problem.
A systematic problem solver might approach this question by breaking down the problem into smaller components and explaining each step in a logical order, while an intuitive problem solver might give a more general overview of how they solved the problem without going into as much detail when describing the situation.
- Intuitive. “There was a time when our team was behind on a project deadline, so I just started throwing out ideas for how we could catch up. We eventually settled on a strategy that worked and were able to finish the project on time.”
- Systematic. “When faced with a problem, I like to break it down into smaller components and analyze each part separately. Then, I create a plan of action and evaluate the effectiveness of the plan as I go along.”
5. Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. How did you handle it, and what did you learn from the experience?
When asking the candidate this question, you are looking for an honest, self-critical answer. The candidate should also be able to explain how making this mistake led them to become better at their job. Their answer to this question will serve as an indication of how they deal with challenging situations.
A systematic problem solver might approach this question by analyzing their mistake and coming up with a detailed plan to prevent it from happening again in the future, while an intuitive problem solver might reflect more on how they felt about the mistake and what they learned from the experience.
6. Describe a situation where you used a creative approach to overcome a problem.
Of course, when hiring new people, we want to hire those who take the most innovative and creative approaches to solving problems, as well as implementing these ideas in reality. In this case, you should be looking for an answer in which the candidate is focusing on explaining the creative approach they took, rather than the problem they were trying to solve. After all, you are looking for someone who can solve problems in a creative way rather than someone who can describe the problem.
An intuitive problem solver might excel in this question by describing a creative solution they came up with on the spot, while a systematic problem solver might struggle more with this question if they prefer to rely on logical and analytical approaches.
- Intuitive. “There was a time when we were running out of storage space at work, so I came up with the idea to repurpose some unused areas of the office as storage. It was a bit unconventional, but it worked.”
- Systematic.“When faced with a problem, I like to think outside the box and consider all possible options. I once used a design thinking approach to come up with a creative solution to a complex issue.”
7. Can you give an example of a time when you saw a potential problem as an opportunity? What did you do, and is there anything you would have done differently?
When answering the question, an intuitive problem solver might be better at recognizing potential opportunities in a problem, while a systematic problem solver might be more likely to focus on identifying and mitigating risks.
8. Imagine you’re in a stressful situation at work and you need to come up with a solution quickly. What would you do?
When asking this question to a candidate, you should be on the lookout for an answer that includes all of the following: an example story, placing their focus on how they handled the stressful situation. Basically – focusing more on actions rather than feelings, and highlighting what skills allowed them to deal with the situation successfully.
Candidates’ answers to this question will allow you to determine whether they are better and more inclined to think on their feet and come up with quick solutions (more intuitive). Or in contrast, more comfortable dealing with stressful situations if there are a set of guidelines or procedures to follow (more systematic).
- Intuitive. “In a stressful situation, I like to take a deep breath and then start brainstorming possible solutions. I find that staying calm and thinking creatively helps me come up with the best solution quickly.”
- Systematic. “When faced with a high-pressure situation, I like to rely on the processes and systems that I have in place. I also prioritize the most important tasks and delegate when possible to ensure that everything gets done efficiently.”
9. Are you someone who prefers to solve problems very quickly, or very carefully and slowly?
This question can give insights into whether the candidate is more of an intuitive or systematic problem solver, with intuitive problem solvers often preferring to act quickly and systematically preferring to take a more measured approach.
10. Tell me about a situation where you were faced with multiple problems. How did you choose which problem to prioritize?
This question has everything to do with how the candidate works under pressure. As well as the extent to which they are capable of prioritizing. When faced with multiple problems, the individual should be able to prioritize between tasks that are of high importance and those that are not as urgent.
When answering this question, the candidate should be able to walk you through their prioritization process and rationally argue their choices. While also placing focus on explaining their planning strategies to ensure that no problem is left unsolved.
A systematic problem solver might approach this question by analyzing each problem and weighing the potential impact of each one before making a decision, while an intuitive problem solver might rely more on their instincts and prioritize the problem that seems most urgent.
- Intuitive. “When faced with multiple problems, I prioritize the ones that have the most immediate impact or are the most pressing. I also try to tackle the problems that I feel most confident in solving first.”
- Systematic. “I like to use a decision matrix to evaluate and prioritize multiple problems. I analyze each problem based on factors such as urgency, impact, and feasibility, and then choose the one that has the highest priority.”
11. How do you know when to solve a problem by yourself? And when to ask for help from someone else?
An intuitive problem solver might be more likely to trust their instincts and try to solve the problem on their own, while a systematic problem solver might be more willing to ask for help if they feel that the problem is outside of their area of expertise.
What you should be looking for in the answer to this question is someone’s ability to be able to gauge in which situations they should most definitely ask for help. And in contrast, in which situations it’s not really necessary. This way you will be able to tell whether this person is capable of solving a problem independently or is always asking for help even when it comes to the little things.
12. What do you do in a situation when you cannot seem to find the right solution to a problem?
An intuitive problem solver might be more likely to experiment with different solutions and try to think outside the box, while a systematic problem solver might be more likely to analyze the problem in greater detail and break it down into smaller components to identify potential solutions.
- Intuitive. “When I’m stuck on a problem, I like to step away from it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. I also try to approach the problem from different angles and see if I can find a new perspective.”
- Systematic. “If I can’t find the right solution to a problem, I’ll go back to the data and information I have collected to see if there’s anything I missed. I’ll also consult with colleagues or experts in the field to get their input and ideas.”
13. How would you react when your manager tells you to think more before taking action?
Lastly, save the best for last – a question that will show to you how the candidate deals with feedback provided about the process of solving a problem and the solution itself.
A systematic problem solver might take this feedback as an opportunity to slow down and approach problems more carefully, while an intuitive problem solver might perceive this as a constraint.
In summary, the answers to these questions can provide insights into a candidate’s problem-solving style. While there isn’t necessarily a “right” or “wrong” style, understanding how a candidate approaches problem-solving can help employers identify individuals who are well-suited for different roles and environments.
Disadvantages of assessing problem-solving in interviews
Interviews are often perceived as the ultimate gateway to finding the perfect candidate, however, in reality, it’s littered with many pitfalls:
- Interviewer bias. The interview process is where our unconscious biases tend to cloud our judgement of a candidate the most.
- Interviews are often inconsistent. Using solely interview questions to assess problem-solving skills allows for no standardized way of presenting results as each candidate you interview will give a different answer to your question and it will become gradually more difficult to compare candidates with each other.
- Interview answers are easily manipulable. Candidates can prepare their answers to these questions, thus leading to unreliable assessment from your side on whether they have the problem-solving skills you are looking for.
- Extremely time-consuming & costly. You’ll probably end up interviewing more people than you should. Just imagine all the time spent interviewing, talking, asking questions, taking notes of the candidate’s answers, and then later on comparing them.
Read more about the 6 downsides assessing candidates problem-solving abilities solely through interviews.
What interview structure allows to best assess candidates problem-solving skills?
According to research, a structured interview is more reliable, valid, and less discriminatory than an unstructured interview. When you structure your interview process, the assessment of personality becomes a designed process. Every question should be carefully chosen to assess the candidate’s skills and knowledge.